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Recently we have learned that under Obamacare”that is, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act”employer insurance plans must provide free non-medical contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization for their employees.

Free is as affordable as it gets; for an accountability-spurning culture, it’s just the right price, indeed. Let us pay nothing in order to beget nothing and, says this government, let us force those interfering “churchy” institutions”who keep insisting that there is something worth contemplating beyond ourselves”to pick up the tab, for good measure.

There is an odd “we are nothing” philosophy behind this HHS decision and the Secretary who made it, and the President who supports it”a chilling promise of emptiness where tomorrow should be. Humanity, cajoled away from fertility and trained in sterility, is being weaned from those thoughts that travel beyond the present moment; we are self-interested beyond reason, and thus profoundly bored; condom-strangled, tube-snipped, and detached from the essential materials of reproduction either through artificial means or artificial equivalencies, our vision of the future is as limited as a pay-telescope’s viewer: tick, tick, tick and then a resolute click! , and it is gone.

With the administration’s decision, the covert culture of death has finally made a truly overt move against the culture of life. On one side, there is cheering. “Women’s groups” are happy. Anti-religionists, particularly those with an animus toward the Catholic church, are nearly delirious. On the other side, there is a grimness that is interesting in its unity, particularly as it is playing out in Catholic media. The furor of more conservative Catholics is unremarkable, but the reactions of the so-called “progressive” church may surprise some for the intensity of their disappointment. At the National Catholic Reporter Michael Sean Winters”furious on behalf of those Catholics who “took some punches” for the sake of President Obama”declares he cannot, in good conscience, cast another vote Obamaward. He now suggests that the bishops chain themselves to the White House fence in order to bring attention to the direct assault this administration is making against the church’s constitutional right to its own conscience”its right to be what it is.

Some, just as disappointed, but looking for a way to continue supporting Obama, are calling the decision “botched,” as though the thing simply wasn’t sufficiently thought-through. Others are hoping that one state’s exemption rules might somehow be adapted to Obamacare, so consciences might be assuaged by November. On NPR, Cokie Roberts expresses concern that Obama may have “created problems” for himself and his re-election.

But HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and President Obama “botched” nothing. The decision put forth is a purposeful one, transparently provocative. If the administration had simply wanted to provide free contraception and sterilization to those who want it, they could have inserted that notion into any one of a number of spending or entitlement bills. Had they meant to demonstrate respect for conscience“and according to Archbishop Timothy Dolan the president said he “considered the protection of conscience sacred”“the administration could have taken the advice of others and looked closely at how Hawaii managed conscience exemptions under their law.

There are questions as to whether HHS has authority to issue exemptions to Obamacare, although quite a few have been issued for reasons other than conscience. There appear to be no questions in the president’s mind, or in Secretary Sebelius’, that they have the authority to intrude on freedom of religion. With this ruling they insist that church-affiliated institutions either act against their own belief or so narrow the scope of their community service as to be removed from the public square; either way, the government is deliberately affecting the free exercise of religion. Considering some Catholic schools, hospitals and charities were serving their communities before the secular governments even thought to follow suit, that is a damnable, and damning, legacy for a president who once taught constitutional law.

To be sure, this situation is cause for concern, but there are some bright spots in all of this. Although the mainstream press has reported very little about this event”a close examination might prove uncomfortable for their own worldviews”the unified public expression of righteous defiance by the U.S. bishops is a powerful development.

Just as importantly, the laity”divided for decades on issues ranging from felt-banners to dress to dogma”has found a line in the sand upon which they can come together; “conservative” Catholics are reassured to see their more “progressive” brethren defending the church’s right to be who and what she is; more “progressive” Catholics may be coming to realize that”as relentlessly single-minded as some of their opponents could be”had they not held the line all these years, much could be crumbling at this moment.

Now is the time for all good Catholics to come to the aid of providers”the schools, hospitals, charities, and soup kitchens who serve communities in need without asking affiliations. And, in coming together, perhaps now is the time to ponder their long-held presumptions, each about the other, and broaden our own outreach as well.

If nothing else, in declaring war against our consciences, the Obama administration has given American Catholics a great gift of clarification; a fractious family we may be, but”as the saying goes” we are church . And we have the right to be who we are.

Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress . Her previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here .


HHS’s ABC’s; Anybody but Catholics

American Bioethicists: “not really wrong” to take a life

Michael Sean Winters

Obama has “botched” it

What about Hawaii

Cokie Roberts on NPR

Unified Bishops

Sebelius’ Contraception Mandate and the Media

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